Copper Canyon on a Budget – Mexico

My wife and I are in our late 50’s and recently retired. I started looking for a Copper Canyon tour on the internet and found numerous trips available from various tour companies – most being seven days or so at about $1,300.00 to $2,000.00 per person. I saw one for $999.00, but when I called, I found the typical bait and switch – now $1,400.00.

Author and wife
Author and wife

During our trip, which we took in April 2007, I visited with numerous folks on various tours. All were quite happy with their tour company and they clearly had many extra activities which occupied their time. They also were spared making reservations, etc., etc. Just show up and go. That is great if you like that sort of thing, but we were somewhat adventurous, and wanted more of a real experience of Mexico, in addition to seeing Copper Canyon.

I started by reading all the internet travel forums including BootsnAll, Aardvark and Frommer’s. I made a list of all the things we wanted to do. We developed an itinerary, identified the transportation and hotel options. We did not make reservations because we did not know for sure how long we wanted to stay in each location. We wanted to be flexible in case one of us got sick and needed to stay in one place a few days.

We bought several guidebooks and found People's Guide to Mexico to be the best. It had several recommendations for tours, one of which was a circle trip beginning in El Paso, through the Copper Canyon to the coast and back. Given the violence in Juarez over the past couple of years, we opted to go across at Presidio, Texas. For those driving from the East (Dallas area), Presidio is about 50 miles closer than El Paso and only a three-hour bus ride to Chihuahua – shorter than the four-plus-hour ride from Juarez. If you're going across at El Paso, you might try Omnibus de Mexico. They showed a direct route from El Paso to Chihuahua without having to change busses in Juarez. Check on how to get a tourist card if you use this option.

The description below is the route and activities we did on our trip – an eight-day adventure that hopefully, parts or all will be beneficial in planning your trip.

Arrive in Presidio, Texas
We stayed at Three Palms Inn, 432-229-3211, (not a great place but the only place – Presidio is not big.) The best restaurant in town is the Patio right downtown. The owner’s wife drives one of the two or three cabs in town, and you can make arrangements to be picked up where you leave your car, a place to do that is at the Three Palms for $2.00 per day, or at a fenced lot next to the Catholic Church on the main drag. The family that lives in the red brick house next to the fenced lot runs the storage service.

We planned on departing the next morning, but drove our car over to Ojinaga that afternoon to get our tourist card, pesos at the bank, bus ticket, water/snacks. Most U.S. auto insurances cover you within 25 miles of the border, if driven by the insured, and you're not there over two weeks. We had no trouble driving over or navigating the area. Streets are not like Juarez, they're wide, as crowded as any small city.

As you enter Mexico, the border station is on your right. Turn in to the small parking lot at the far end of the building, and go to the immigration desk inside. Take your passports. Everyone traveling needs to go in and complete a tourist card. The immigration dude will show you how to fill it out, he will stamp it and your passport. Then you need to go to a local bank and pay the fee (237pesos or about $22.00 each). This only takes a few minutes, the cab will wait for you to get it done the morning you leave if you don’t want to drive over the day before. You can wait and pay the tourist fee in Chihuahua at a bank, if you wish. The bank will stamp your tourist card also. You have to carry it around with your passport until you leave the country.

Two bus lines provide Primero Bus service to Chihuahua, Chihuahenses and O de M of Omnibus of Mexico. Premiro buses are much better that anything Greyhound uses in the states. Most are Mercedes or Volvos, like airplanes with in-flight movies, etc.

The bus schedules are posted on the Ojinaga Website, and there is a 24-hour cab stand across the street from the O de M station. Be aware – Mexico time is one hour earlier than Texas time.

Cathedral next to the Quality Inn
Cathedral next to the Quality Inn

Brief journal of eight days
We checked out of our motel, had breakfast at the Patio, left our car at the lot and took a cab to Ojinaga. From there, we were on a three-hour bus ride to Chihuahua. We stayed at the San Francisco – a decent Quality Inn (reservations can be made online through BootsnAll). We walked down to Poncho Villa’s house, now the Museum of the Revolution. From Chihuahua, we went on a five-hour bus ride to Creel, we stayed at Casa Margaritas, right on the square. We had a small double room with private bath, clean and quaint. Meals were provided in a communal dining room where we met people from Switzerland, Scotland and Mexico City.

The bus for Batopilas leaves and returns from in front of Los Pinos. Buy tickets from the store next door, or on the bus. Pack some snacks because it is a long and perilous journey. An outfitter in town rents vehicles so you can drive to Batopilas. Ha! I have been on lots of mountain roads but this one was the scariest. Take the bus – yes, it is scary, but you can close your eyes, it's something you do only once. Check the bus schedule with the store next to the Los Pinos since it leaves Creel at different times each day

Road to Batopilas
Road to Batopilas

The bus to Batopilas is almost death defying, yet so beautiful. For the first 75 kilometers, it is smooth, a two-lane blacktop, which the driver negotiated at well over 200 miles per hour! Now I know where Indy drivers retire. We stopped for everybody who waves and delivers the mail to spots down in the valley floor. The last 65 kilomters is a single and sometimes half lane gravel/dirt/air road on the side of cliffs which drop who knows how far down. Passing other vehicles is absolutely impossible, but the driver managed to get around the 20-30 vehicles coming up the goat trail.

Batopilas is a small town, about two blocks wide. It winds a mile down the edge of a river. There is no possible way that a bus can get through the narrow streets of this little town, however, a miracle occurred. The bus got skinnier and we made it to the town square! The bus leaves from here at 5:00 a.m. the next morning.

Senora Monse's Guesthouse
Senora Monse's Guesthouse

We stayed at Senora Monse's Guesthouse right on the river side of the square – four rooms, clean beds and hammocks in the small courtyard. This is not a five-star resort. There are a number of places for accommodations, though, more than enough. I think we were the only gringos in town that day. We had lunch at El Quintro Patio – excellent. We walked around town, watched folks taking a bath in the river, washing clothes in the river, and probably doing other stuff in the river as well! This is a beautiful little, sleepy town. I'm glad we saw it. If you enjoy peace, quiet and a good book, you could stay here several days on the cheap.

By day five, we returned to Creel, again by bus. For the first 25 kilometers we averaged 10 miles per hour. We went 12 miles per hour for the next 40 kilometers, and 30 miles per hour for the following 75 kilometers, which were on paved roads. We grabbed a quick lunch, the Primera train to El Fuerte was due at 11:15 a.m. You can only get tickets 30 minutes before the train leaves, unless you buy all your tickets ahead of time from one of the end stations. Purchasing your ticket beforehand can be good and not so good. You sacrifice flexibility, but if the train is full and you have no tickets, you can’t get on. Ticketed passengers get on first. We had no trouble, the Primera train was always at least half empty this time of year.

Train to El Fuerte
Train to El Fuerte

We arrived by train in El Fuerte at 7:00 p.m. The train station is way out south of town, but there are always cabs waiting. We took one into town and asked the driver to let us off at the Rio Vista. We had a giant room with a huge tile bath, air conditioning, television, two queen beds and one twin bed, with a view overlooking the river – all this for $50.00 per night!

Even if you don’t stay at tho Rio Vista, walk over behind the “fort” to see the hummingbirds. There are four feeders and always close to 20 or 30 birds feeding.

Try to stay over a Sunday in El Fuerte because there is a fiesta and celebration in the plaza with dancing and music. We missed it, but were told it was fun, fun, fun. We ate a late breakfast at a little sidewalk kitchen and walked around the market area. Being a Saturday, it was crowded with people from the countryside buying what they needed for the week. After a cold beer and a short siesta, we took a two-hour river trip. We saw birds, an archeological site where they have uncovered a number of rock petroglyphs – worth the $25.00 we paid. When we got back, we walked around the town for a while, had dinner at El Supremo – great Mexican food.

Hanging out over the canyon
Hanging out over the canyon

On day six, we took the Primera train back to Posada Barrancas, bought tickets onboard and looked for a place to stay. There are several accommodations in "town" – not really a town – homes along a road. It's deceptive, my opinion. We ended at the Posada Mirador, on the rim of the canyon, about a quarter mile from the train station. There is always someone at the station to bring you to their hotel. The room was $250.00 per night – our one splurge – beautiful with the balcony overlooking, no, hanging out over Copper Canyon! All meals were included in the dining room overlooking the canyon. (There are no other eating places).

That afternoon we toured in a Hummer for about three hours. The guide took us to the top of a ridge where the entire Copper Canyon was spread before us. What a sight! We stopped at a Tarahumara village on the way back, visited a Tarahumara family in their home. That will change your perspective. I can’t say more – you have to experience their utter poverty.

On day seven after breakfast, we hiked along the rim of the canyon and returned to check out of our room. Since the train only stops for a short time in Divisadero, instead of reboarding the train at Posada Barrancas, we got the staff to drive us the five miles to Divisaderos where we stayed at another plush place, but for only $170.00 (off season rates), including three meals. We shopped at the little booths of Indian displays and ate off the street vendors, who cook on 55-gallon oil drums turned into stoves. Off to Chihuahua on the Primera train.

On our last day, we returned by bus to Ojinaga, back to Presidio where we turned in our tourist card and got our passport exit stamped. The line of cars waiting to get across the U.S. inspection station was long, took about 30 minutes and in hot weather, so be sure to get an air conditioned cab.

If you don't want to spend a lot for a night on the rim of the canyon, I advise staying in Creel at Casa Margaritas, taking the train down to Divisadero, stay a few hours, shop, have lunch at one of the outdoor taco stands and ride one of the many buses back to Creel in mid afternoon. I am sure the Hotel Divisadero could tell you the bus schedule – they leave from outside their front door.

We spent a total of $1,607.00 for two people (seven nights, eight days). This included 15-20% for tips. We had a great time and saw parts of Mexico that those on the tours did not. I hope this helps you plan your independent trip to the Copper Canyon.

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